Claims that the Department of Child Services was negligent in its handling of child-molestation allegations were reinstated Tuesday, when a divided Indiana Supreme Court in a 3-2 opinion reversed in part a trial court grant of summary judgment.
The parents of three children sued DCS and other public-agency defendants after an investigation into allegations that a 12-year-old relative had molested one of their much younger children. DCS investigated and discovered the relative also had admitted to molesting another of the children and had been adjudicated delinquent – facts that the mother learned from a third party and which later were confirmed to her when she contacted the agency.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the public-agency defendants on the basis of immunity, but justices reversed as it pertained to DCS in F.D., G.D., and T.D. b/n/f J.D. and M.D.; and J.D. and M.D., individually v. Indiana Dept. of Child Services, Evansville Police Dept., and Vanderburgh County Prosecutor's Office, 82S01-1301-CT-19.
Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote for a majority joined by Justices Steven David and Robert Rucker that the trial court grant of summary judgment was appropriate under the Tort Claims Act as it pertained to the Evansville Police Department. “However, because plaintiffs' claims against DCS do not result from the 'initiation of a judicial or an administrative proceeding,' DCS is not immune under Indiana Code Section 34-13-3-3(6) and summary judgment in favor of DCS is therefore improper," he wrote.
Likewise, summary judgment is improper under the child-abuse reporting statute, I.C. 31-33-6-1.
Justices Loretta Rush and Mark Massa dissented and would have affirmed immunity in part because the claim arose from DCS’s participation in the initiation of a judicial proceeding.
"In the absence of immunity, Indiana law requires us to analyze whether the Legislature intended the violation of the Notice Statute to give rise to a negligence action. Applying that analysis, I can find no such legislative intent here. I do not condone DCS’s egregious conduct of allegedly not notifying parents of their child’s abuse, but not every breach of a statutory duty provides plaintiffs with a negligence action,” Rush wrote in dissent.
“I conclude DCS is immune from liability, and even if it weren’t, the Notice Statute would not provide plaintiffs with a private right of action,” she wrote.